December 2, 2015
Coach Leo Cullen made a few selection calls for this game that saw Josh van der Flier and Luke McGrath starting after impressive showings in recent weeks. Ian Madigan was selected to start at 12 with Luke Fitzgerald moving out to the wing again. It was the 6th center partnership that Leinster have started with this season, which is understandable in some ways given that the internationals never had a pre-season with Leinster so Leo couldn't look at his options until now. However it isn't something Leinster would want to have continue for much longer. They need to settle on their combinations soon to ensure they can get the greatest level of continuity possible. In terms of the Ulster game it meant another unfamiliar midfield. It was good to see some of the younger players form rewarded with selection though with Dooley, Tracy, Molony and Ringrose all coming off the bench. There certainly seemed to be a good bit of forward thinking in the selection.
We had heard during the week that the pack had returned to training early to address the scrum issues that cost Leinster so dearly in Bath. And inside the first 2 minutes we saw the results of that. Leinster were totally dominant in the first scrum and won a penalty from it. The resulting lineout saw Leinster look to exploit Gilroys defensive naivety. Off second phase Madigan stepped in as first receiver with Nacewa taking an inside line. To Madigans left Sexton was looping around behind Nacewa with Fitzgerald out on the wing. As you can see below Gilroy came charging in to midfield when that area was already sufficiently covered. He left a big gap on the outside with Fitzgerald waiting to take advantage. The plan would have been for Nacewa to pop the ball back to Sexton, who would then fix Gilroy and give the pass out to Fitzgerald. Madigan struggled to hold the pass and the move broke down, but you can see from the below images that they created the space. Unfortunately this wasn't the last time Leinster created an opportunity and failed to exuecte due to unforced errors.
There were a number of occasions where Leinster just let chances escape them. Kirchner had a clear run to the line during the first half but a poor pass from Nacewa off his bad hand went into touch. Te'o in the second half had a straight forward run in as well but Sexton was forced to rush the pass a little and Te'o just couldn't hold onto it. Add to that Best holding up young van der Flier over the line, a great peice of work from Best, and there were easily another 3 or 4 opportunities that Leinster could, and maybe should, have converted. Had they managed some of those we could have been looking at a scoreline like 25-3, which in reality would have been a fairly accurate reflection of the game. For 55 minutes Ulster didn't threaten the Leinster red zone once. In fact they only made it into the Leinster 22 three or four times, and on all of those occassions they couldn't get more than a few metres beyond the 22m line. They did create an opportunity midway through the second half, but was the only try scoring chance that they had all game. And ultimately Leinsters defence held firm and Moore won a turnover penalty on the deck. That points to just how dominant Leinster were over their provincial rivals.
The big issue that Leinster had in the first 50-60 minutes, and it was the same against Wasps a few weeks ago, was that they were not turning that dominance into points. 34 minutes into the game Leinster had a penalty that was probably in range of one of the 2 goalkickers on the field. Yet they went to the corner. They lost the line-out and the chance to get points on the board was gone. When you get into scoring positions you simply must come away with points. The Leinster of 4 years ago were ruthless in that regard and they could do with being so again.
What was probably most disappointing though was the final 30 minutes of the game. Or more to the point the form of our half backs in that time frame. Luke McGrath had to leave the field in the first half with an injury and had been having a good game up to that point. Reddan, when he came on, mixed the good with the bad. Some decent service to his back line and a few good snipes went hand in hand with an inabliity to hold onto the ball in contact and a few inaccurate passes. But when Leinster were yet again in a try scoring position on 52 minutes with a scrum 5m from the Ulster line Reddan dropped the ball. Literally. This allowed Ulster to clear their lines. Minutes later from a line-out he threw a terrible pass that went forward and to deck allowing Ulster gain possession. These 2 mistakes alone put the brakes on any Leinster momentum and in fact gave Ulster some of their own. It was directly after this that Ulster finally got up as far as the Leinster line. But nothing came of that attack and the game just fizzled out from there really.
Madigan replacing Sexton didn't help either as the elder statesman dictated proceedings very well despite not quite being on top form. Madigans performances at 10 this season for Leinster have become a real cause for concern. Two very badly executed attempts at drop goals were bad enough, but the last of them was on 78 minutes when we just needed to run down the clock and not hand Ulster back the ball. Earlier in the game when Reid was down injured he needed to put the ball into the stands so that Reid could get treatment and Leinster could get back to 15 men. Instead he thumped it down the middle of the park and straight back to Nelson who gladly ran it back at Leinster. These decisions are inexcusable for a guy of his experience. But we've seen a number of examples of that when he's been at 10 in the last few weeks. All that said his performance at 12 was actually pretty good and so maybe that's where he should stay. He can be used as a second playmaker while not having all the pressure on him to control things the way he would need to from 10. He linked up well with Sexton and provides an additional option for his scrum half. He has plenty of talent, but maybe just not the head for top level rugby at 10?
Speaking of guys who did well special mention has to be made of Josh van der Flier. He topped the tackle stats of all players on the pitch (although Tracy did a good job of competing with him, making 11 tackles in the 20 minutes he was on!), disrupted ball at the breakdown well, turned over a few and even got over the line only to be held up by a great effort from Rory Best. His workrate was incredible throughout. He was easily a contender for MOTM, which in the end went to Luke Fitzgerald. Luke himself had a fine game in many respects, his only weakness being the high ball which he struggled with a few times. Sexton continued his upward curve in form with a controlled performance, even if it still wasn't at the level you'd associate with the man.
Ultimately it was a positive, if flawed, performance from a Leinster side who could create chances but not convert them. However it was also one that showed an improvement over the previous weeks efforts in Bath. Form isn't a switch that you can flick on and improvements must be made over time. It seems that Leinster are certainly heading in the right direction in that regard and if they can keep building on their performances there is no reason to believe that they can't go on to challenge for silverware at the end of the season. As for Ulster it is still early days for Les Kiss, but given their severe lack of cutting edge there are questions that need to be asked. It was a pretty strong line-up that really should have done better.